Why is Advent Significant?

  1. By Michael Mathews
  2. On Dec.05.2013

For many in America the Christmas season begins the day after Thanksgiving or as is sometimes now the case, as soon as the turkey and dressing have digested. Often the very moment our tryptophan induced comas begin to subside, we find our coats to make our way to a few big box stores or to haul a few big boxes of Christmas decorations in from the garage. For the Church however, celebrations such as Christmas have never commenced until a period of preparation and anticipation has concluded. The period that proceeds and gives appropriate meaning to the Christmas season is called Advent.

Advent is a Latin word and roughly translated means “coming”. The season of Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas Day and is the period in which we prepare our hearts, as it were, for the coming of God to us, not only in his Nativity, but also in his Second Advent, when he will return to create a new heaven and earth and to finish God’s work of redeeming creation.

Advent is unique in the Christian calendar because it is a season of progression. On each Sunday of Advent more truth is revealed, and for that reason, Advent has been compared to the rising of the sun. The First Sunday of Advent focuses on the longing and waiting of God’s people and thus is similar to the first beams of sunlight that break the darkness of a long night. As more light shines through, the longing and waiting that is the focus of the First Sunday gives way to the hope that is the focus of the Second. And just as the light of a sunrise grows and begins to illuminate more of the sky, on the Third Sunday hope grows and becomes joy. Finally this joy becomes the glory that is celebrated on the Fourth Sunday as the fulfillment of God’s promises is more fully revealed. So over the course of four weeks, Advent takes us from emptiness and longing to the joy of Christmas and the fulfillment that God provides in a baby that lies in a manger. Theology professor, Rob Staples, describes the significance of this progression well when he writes:

“If done well, that liturgical movement takes people along in the journey of their lives, as they enact their own experiences in worship. It gives people a structure in which to take the vagueness of their own distant longings as they identify with Israel’s longings, and brings them to an expressed hope and faith that God is, indeed, "with us." It is this journey that gives people a context for celebration.”

It is precisely because it provides this context for Christmas that the season of Advent has never been more important. Advent starts right where the commercial Christmas season ends. The commercial Christmas season promises glory on Black Friday, but because it celebrates little more than self-consumption, by the night of December 25th it tends to leave us feeling empty, consumed and longing for something more. The commercial Christmas season actually reverses the progression of Advent as the hope that another feast or the joy of a new gadget fades into the longing for more than material consumption. Advent gets the order right. We can’t celebrate until we see that any celebration in and of itself will not satisfy us. We can’t celebrate until we have longed and waited and hoped for something more than this world can provide. We can’t celebrate until we have looked to God to provide the hope and joy that humanity can not. And we can’t celebrate until we see that God has entered into our darkness, into our waiting and into our longing and has given us himself. Christmas is the celebration of that very fact, that God has given himself to us in the person of Jesus, and Advent is the journey to the celebration.